No, Twitter users didn't fail 'Science Guy'

The gist of the story on the front page of Yahoo News last week was that Bill "The Science Guy" Nye passed out while speaking to several hundred University of Southern California students and those students callously ignored the stricken man's plight in favor of yammering about it on Twitter.

It was one of those "See how technology has warped our values" tales, only more baseless than is typical of the genre.From the story: "… what's odd about the incident isn't so much Nye's slight health setback as the crowd's reaction. Or, more precisely, its nonreaction, according to several accounts. It appears that the students in attendance, rather than getting up from their seats to rush to Nye's aid, instead pulled out their mobile devices to post information about Nye's loss of consciousness."

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Immediately, I'm thinking this has the smell of baloney. Next paragraph: "Alastair Fairbanks, a USC senior … told the Los Angeles Times that 'nobody went to his aid at the very beginning when he first collapsed — that just perplexed me beyond reason.' The student added, 'Instead, I saw students texting and updating their Twitter statuses. It was just all a very bizarre evening.' "

At this point you have a picture of Nye lying unconscious while no one – not an event organizer or audience member – moves a muscle except to whip out the iPhone to tell the world what happened in 140 characters or less. The Yahoo writer goes on to compare this transgression to the tweets that conveyed images of a dying murder victim in New Orleans and the famous video that made "don't tase me bro" a part of the lexicon. Tsk-tsk, what's wrong with young people today?

Hundreds of scathing comments followed, as did a spate of copycat stories, including one in the New York Daily News.

Now I wasn't there, but let's go to that Los Angeles Times account to see if there's more information. Yes, immediately before that damning quote from Fairbanks we get this: "Tristan Camacho, a USC senior … said Nye was walking toward the podium when he collapsed mid-sentence. Then after about 10 seconds, he popped back up with much gusto and asked everybody how long he was out for and went on with a story about how a similar thing happened to him that morning."

Ten seconds? Exactly how many of the hundreds of self-absorbed tweeters in attendance were supposed to have rushed to Nye's side in those 10 seconds? (Reading this paragraph took you about 10 seconds.)

Aside from the one quote from the flabbergasted Fairbanks, neither the Times account nor one in the USC student newspaper took any issue with responsiveness of those in attendance. Moreover, the Yahoo story gives the distinct impression that the offensive tweeting was happening while Nye lay stricken … for 10 seconds. Not likely.

What I am certain happened is that a number of those in attendance, having witnessed something unusual, used their phones to tell others. If you have been to any kind of public event in recent years you know that this kind of in-the-moment communication is about as noteworthy as a balky microphone.

And if you're going to accuse a couple hundred people of callous indifference born of technology obsession, you'd better bring more proof. Bill Nye would demand it.

Contact me at, unless someone needs immediate medical attention.

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This story, "No, Twitter users didn't fail 'Science Guy'" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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